Podcast

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Get Out

Rose brings her black boyfriend Chris home to meet her wealthy, supposedly liberal family: dad Dean, mother Missy and brother Jeremy. He’s creeped out by the black maid Georgina and groundskeeper Walter. Missy hypnotizes him and gets him to admit he did nothing when his mother was dying from a car accident. They have a big garden party where he meets blind art dealer Jim and a wealthy black guy named Logan, who suddenly screams “Get out!” when he gets a flash in his eyes. Unbeknownst to Chris, the party guests have an auction for his body.  (Rose’s grandparents have already claimed the bodies of Georgina and Walter.)  Chris decides to leave too late and ends up strapped to a chair, but finally escapes by plugging up his ears so he can’t hear the sound that has been hypnotizing him. He kills everybody in the house (including Jim, who’s waiting for his body). He’s rescued by his friend Rod, who works for the TSA.

PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
A young black man becomes increasingly aware that his white girlfriend and her family may have sinister designs on him. 
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
These liberals love black people a little bit too much.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Very much so.  We’ve all felt like everybody at a party was talking about us behind our backs, even if we’re white. 
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Yes
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Chris
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
Yes
Does the story present a unique relationship?
Very much so.  We’ve never seen a pairing like Chris and Rose before, once we find out what’s really going on.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Just about everybody
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
Greatest hope: Someone finally loves him.  Greatest fear: That he’ll be passively trapped inside a screen again, as he was when his mom died.  (But as a photographer, he hides behind a lens, so his relationship to glass is complex.)
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
His story with his mom makes the sunken place especially horrific for him. 
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
Rose is all he has in the world, so he doesn’t want to admit she or her family is evil.  And he doesn’t want to think about his mom.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes, pretty much.  If he’d waited for Rod to show up, it would have been too late.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
In the commentary, Peele says that Chris turns a corner when he tries to rescue Georgina, symbolically finally saving his mom.  He certainly transforms the situation.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
Very much: It’s funny, moving, scary and thrilling.  Everybody loves it, even if they hate horror.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
It’s tricky, because almost all of the horror imagery is a spoiler.  Ultimately, they cleverly found a way to promote it by just showing him crying while hypnotized, but Blumhouse also insisted on including in the first trailer a lame shot Peele had cut from the actual movie, showing a skeleton deer in the sunken place, and Peele reluctantly agreed.  They also included a knight’s helmet on the poster that was mostly cut from the movie. 
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
So many!  The sunken place! The auction! The killings!
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
To put it mildly.  We know some shit will go down, but don’t guess what.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Blumhouse did an amazing job marketing without revealing the twist.  (The biggest spoiler was the title)
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Very much so.
PART #2: CHARACTER 16/22
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
He admires himself in the mirror, then knicks himself shaving, which is comically vain. 
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Backstory becomes very important, but it doesn’t come into play until we’ve bonded to him (It does tie in to one reason we like him: He checks on the deer because nobody checked on his mom, but we only realize that on a second or third viewing)
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
An acclaimed photographer.  A self-confidant young black man in love with a white woman.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
He blames himself for his mother’s death and he fears everyone is out to get him.  
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Just very slightly.  He talks a little blacker to Rod than he does to her (“Yo, you at work?”) but for the most part he speaks rather generically.  He’s code-switching, and around white people he’s studiously generic in his metaphor family.
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Leery but too much of a peace-maker to act on his fears.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Not really, and he loses every argument he has in the movie.  He’ll try things like, “That was a dollar, you just threw a dollar out the window” when she throws away his cigarette, but it’s a halfhearted attempt and fails.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
His motivation is that Rose is all he has in the world (other than his dog and Rod) but we don’t understand that until halfway through.  Before he admits that, we wonder why he’s putting up with this.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 She says, “They are not racist. I would have told you. I wouldn't be bringing you home to them. Think about that for just two seconds.” Chris responds, “I'm thinking. Yeah, yeah, yeah good.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
He’s not very goal oriented.  In retrospect, we can figure that he might have seen this as an opportunity to have a family again, but he mainly just pastes on a smile in the first half and doesn’t try hard to impress.  He’s very polite but not eager to please.    
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: that he’ll be “chased off the lawn with a shotgun”, Hidden: that he killed his mother, that everybody wants to kill him.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Very much so.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
He’s too much of a passive observer.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
His ability to passively observe makes him a great street photographer.  He’s got a great eye.
(I guess you could say that another flaw/strength pair is flaw: he’s not paranoid enough and strength: he’s a peace-maker, but that, too, turns out to be a flaw.  In 2017, the country agreed on one thing: The time for peace-making had passed)
Is the hero curious?
He keeps spotting things that are off, and asking questions, but can’t put it all together.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Not really at first, but in the end he is.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
I can make this work, I am an observer, I shouldn’t be so paranoid.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Rod lacks his chill, but Rod is totally proven right.  Rose lacks his racial awareness. 
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
He gently points out to Rose her seeming naivete, but mainly just reacts to everyone with pointedly-quizzical looks.  He laughs off Rod.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
Sort of: He’s shaving.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Absolutely none, as Dean jokingly points out.  She drove. 
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
He finds his camera flash very useful.  Also,  even since the night his mother died, he’s had a nervous tick of scratching at the arms of chairs, and that ironically saves him.  Even more ironically, once he’s scratched open the chair, he then picks the cotton from inside it, which Peele implies in his commentary is Chris drawing on some racial memory. 
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 20/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
He doesn’t trust Rose that her parents will accept him (but doesn’t realize that he’s trusting them too much.)
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
The cops demands his ID, and he has to rely on Rose to defend him.  He is then constantly humiliated by Rose’s parents.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
It seems so: Rose defends him from the cop, implying that his relationship with her will give him access to her privilege.  
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
He doesn’t trust them or his own perceptions.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
He sort of agrees to let Missy hypnotize him, putting himself in their power.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
He regrets it the next morning.  Georgina and Walter just keep acting more threatening to him.  So does Jeremy.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
He tries to fit in at the party. 
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
Only in the deleted scenes, where Jim offers Chris a gallery show.   I think it was only cut because it overlapped with a long badmitton scene that wasn’t needed.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
To put it mildly! 
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
Well, he can try, but he’s pretty powerless.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Very much so.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Yes, both for him and also for Rod, who now becomes our second hero. 
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Very much so.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Yes, he realizes when he speaks to Jim in pre-op what white people really see in him.  
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
After the ¾ point point, he chooses to save himself.  He discovers that the only way to save himself from slavery is to pick some cotton.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
He fights them all to the death.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
He briefly tries to be proactive at the midpoint, but doesn’t succeed until the ¾ point point.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
Well, yes, things escalate more quickly than he’s prepared for.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Yes, everybody’s there. 
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Chris chooses to try to save Georgina and thus makes his peace with his mom’s death.  He fails to save her, but “saves” Walter just in time for Walter to shoot Rose and kill himself.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
He rediscovers peace-making and chooses not to choke Rose to death (but Peele points out that he ultimately leaves her to die alone in the road like his mother died).  Rod delivers the moral: “I told you not to go in that house.”  Chris presumably agrees.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 16/20: Chris sneaks out for a smoke in the night, has creepy encounters with Georgina and Walter, then finds Missy up drinking tea.  She implores him to sit down, he repeats that he doesn’t want to be hypnotized, but she does it anyway with her teacup.  She gets him to admit the facts of his mother’s death, then sends him to a “sunken place” in his mind.
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
He’s made it clear he doesn’t want to be hypnotized.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No, it goes from the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
He’s at his in-laws’ house, and they’ve been acting weird about him being black.  He’s just run into Georgina and Walter acting vaguely menacing to him.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
He just wants to smoke or go back to bed, not have a discussion with his mother-in-law, and certainly not be hypnotized.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Not really.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Sort of, once we realized what she’s doing with the teacup, and he’s got to get out of there before it gets him.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
It’s both a big plot scene and a big character scene.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We’re rooting for Chris and don’t trust Missy.  (Maybe if the movie had a different title, white audiences might still be giving her a bit of a benefit of a doubt at this point.)
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
She’s pretending to help him quit smoking, but in actuality she has a very different agenda than him.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface conflict: I don’t want to be hypnotized. Suppressed, it seems at the time: I don’t want a black man dating my daughter.  Suppressed, we eventually realize: I want to enslave you, etc.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Criticizing him for smoking in front of her daughter has a subtext of accusing him of subjecting her daughter to other vices.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
He’s very reluctant to talk about his mom.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
She gets him to laugh at his stereotypes about hypnotism, but ensnares him as she’s doing it.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
No, they both just sit down and don’t touch.  She pushes him in a different way.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
No. 
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
He gets lured into getting hypnotized, sent to the sunken place
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
She promised him more self-control and left him with none.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Previously: Will she hypnotize him?  New: What has she done to him?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Will he ever get out of the sunken place (Then, when we cut to him waking up, we wonder if the whole thing might have been a nightmare, which helps explain why he doesn’t immediately get out of the house.)
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
We’re terrified for him from this point on.
PART #5: DIALOGUE 14/16
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Not really.  We’re only supposed to empathize with Chris and Rod.  Even when we think Rose isn’t in on it, we don’t emotionally bond with her.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Sure.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Well, Chris just wants to fit in, so he’s a people-pleaser, but ultimately he’s doing this in order to get love for himself, not out of a selfless love of anybody else.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
Yes.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Yes. Rose slyly interrupts Chris every time he starts to speculate.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
Not really.  A little bit for the TSA.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
Yes.  Rod, for example: MF: TSA, DPT: Paranoid, DAS: Claiming that his job grants him more authority than he actually has.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Yes.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Yes, especially Rod.  Dean with his “my man”
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Yes.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Yes.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
Hmm, I guess maybe the dad is heart, the mom is head, the brother is gut? 
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
Well, there are several false “I understand you” moments, starting with standing up to the cop. 
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
Yes.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Quite literally.
Part #6: Tone 10/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
Horror and social satire merged from the beginning.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
The “Get out of that house, you idiot!” sub-genre
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
No good guys die (except maybe if you count the victims buried deep within Georgina and Walter) and evil is totally defeated, so it’s more like an action movie ending than a horror ending.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
Creepy, odd, satirical
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
Chris’s dramatic question (Will they accept me?) will be answered definitively (and ironically) halfway through, and then we will default to Rod’s original question (Will he make it home?)
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
We start with the kidnapping of Andre to establish the genre.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
Both Andre and Andre’s white self Logan, when we think they are different people, seem like different possible fates for Chris.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
A tremendous amount of foreshadowing.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
No longer wants to smoke.  Refuses to wrestle brother at first. 
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
He presumably makes it home.
PART 7: THEME 12/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Cooperation vs. vigilance
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
Rod says “You better not come back all bougie on me tho” Will he?  Can he fit in without losing his blackness?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
She chooses to stand up to the cop for him, he has to decide whether or not to reveal his suspicions about the servants, etc.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Yes, wild and crazy as it is, it feels like, in some odd way, this is the way the world works.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
Peele, who is biracial, wittily observes universal truths about white worlds and black worlds.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so. It had a lot to say about the Obama era, when it was written, and the Trump era, when it was directed.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Very much so. 
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Much more so in the original ending, where Chris went to jail for killing all those white people.  Instead they released a better stand-up-and-cheer ending, but we know Chris is going to have a hard time explaining his whereabouts and actions.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
Oh dear lord yes, as Peele makes clear in his DVD commentary.  Almost every thing we see or hear speaks to theme.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
The teacup, the cell phone, the items in the rec room. 
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
No, it tips definitively: Vigilance is entirely great, cooperation is fatally naive.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
The in-laws love him, after all.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
Lots of them.  Will he be able to explain any of this to the cops?  What about all the other victims?  (Of course, there are even more loose ends in Peele’s next movie.)
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Chris barely speaks in the final third of the movie and won’t talk about what happened to him when Rod rescues him. 
Final Score: 106 out of 122

2 comments:

James Kennedy said...

Great list! Arguably Chris being a smoker is another "moment of humanity," since smoking is so looked-down upon now. I suspect everyone feels they might have little habits that they suspect, rightly or wrongly, that most other people look down on. Smoking is a nice stand-in for all of them.

Matt Bird said...

Yes, it certainly helps humanize him.